For many years, how to achieve connection was one of the most difficult things I tried to explain to my students. I wish I had known a long time ago what I know now.
I am fortunate to have a state-of-the-art interactive dressage simulator, “Luke,” that looks, moves and reacts like a real horse (without an attitude!). I use him to teach equitation fundamentals in conjunction with arena lessons on the student’s horse. One invaluable observation I have made when teaching on the simulator is that most riders have trouble with connection: keeping it steady but soft, staying supple in the hands and wrists, learning to ride without relying on the hands.
I cannot feel the riders’ hands and wrists while they’re riding their horses, but on Luke I can put my hands on the rider’s wrists and feel exactly what she is doing while riding different gaits and movements. I have found that as many as 80 to 90 percent of the riders I teach on the simulator block their wrists, especially the right one. This is not visible to the eye most of the time, so it is very easy for the instructor to miss while teaching on a real horse.
When the rider blocks the wrist, the horse cannot/will not go up to that rein. Instead, the horse tilts his head slightly to that side to avoid the pressure from the blocked wrist. If it is the right wrist that is blocking, the horse drifts slightly to the left since the left rein is the only rein connecting. Often, the rider tries to correct the horse with the left leg to make him go straight. This is counterproductive since the horse is told to go left with the rein and right with the leg. If the rider can relax the wrist and bend the right elbow instead, the horse will go straight without any leg.
When the horse is ridden with a blocked hand or wrist, he also gets weak on that side. The muscles become shorter since he never steps up with the hind leg to the contact and the rein on that side. The other side stays connected to the softer, more controlled hand and therefore, develops stronger and longer muscles. This leads to difficulties bending the horse to the stronger, so-called “stiffer,” side because the opposite—weaker side—has short and inelastic muscles. This often misleads the rider to think the horse is stiff (or hard to bend) to the left and soft (or easy to bend) to the right. There are also riders who block both wrists, inhibiting connection on either rein. In this case, the horse goes above or behind the bit.
The key to keeping connection is in the elbows (while keeping the horse coming forward without speeding up). Instead of attempting connection with pulling-back or blocking hands, you have to learn to allow the elbows to move in rhythm with the gait. To achieve this, be completely relaxed in the wrists and arms, holding the reins with a closed, soft fist as if you are holding a baby chick. Don’t kill it, but don’t let it escape. Your elbows should bend softly, creating an angle. The lower arms and reins create a straight line to the horse’s mouth. This allows the energy to go through your hands and wrists into your elbows. The elbows connect with the rhythm of the gait. It is easiest to practice this in walk and canter since the rhythm in those gaits is clearer than in trot.
To keep the wrists soft and supple during transitions, turns and movements, think about how they are when holding a pen and writing your signature: They are completely supple yet holding the pen steady. Then think of the reins as two sticks going from your elbows into the horse’s mouth, pushing the bit forward without disconnecting. Maintaining a steady contact to the bit with totally relaxed wrists, again while keeping your horse coming forward without speeding up, allows him to step up to the contact without getting restricted in his movements. Your legs should be draped around your horse, without squeezing, only touching when you want him to react and step more forward up to the contact.
Once you have connection, your horse can move more freely yet be completely in control—a controlled freedom in harmony
Barbro Ask-Upmark is a USDF gold medalist. She won numerous high-point awards at Grand Prix in 2010 and 2011, including the Dressage Association of Southern California Championship. She has represented her native Sweden, competing in numerous international events. Now based in Somis, California, she offers training programs for horses and riders at Spirit Equestrian as well as at clinics throughout the United States (alwaysagoodride.com).